As social distancing measures are eased, Cath Holland takes a second look at the effects of the pandemic on those living on the breadline – those who will remain most at risk in terms of health and class prejudices as the economy begins to reopen.
As lockdown bedded in, the gulf between the haves and have-nots contracted with a sense of common unease. It also widened sharply in other ways. One half relaxed into the routine of working from home, or in the relative comfort of furlough. Food and utility bills aside there was little to buy, few shops open and no nights out to pay for. This could not be a holiday exactly, but a break from life’s fast pace – space to breathe! The worry worm inside all of us wriggled in warning, pushed deep down out of sight, the gift of time to work on new creative projects a blessing not a curse, the romance of living an introverted existence.
The remainder of the population fretted, living in quiet terror of shrunken wages and redundancy. Existing on a decreased proportion of already low pay makes a hard life even tougher. The task of proving identity for a Universal Credit claim remotely was a challenge, the humiliating five week wait for money and knowledge that payments are meagre once they arrive. Loneliness and skin hunger, having no physical contact with another loved human. A pile-on of uncertainty of everything they thought they knew.
One day mid-April, Chancellor of the Exchequer Rishi Sunak looked the 5pm daily briefing camera straight into its lens. The government, he claimed, insisted from day one it can’t “protect” all households and businesses against the effects of the pandemic. He spoke quickly, efficiently in a familiar tone utilised by austerity ministers not too long ago. Confirmation via catch-up threw up the inevitable thought: “Who does he mean? Who can’t they protect?” Sunak’s words were left unrepeated after that, but cold damp insecurity remained.
The Beatles song Eleanor Rigby is an ode to the lonely, written over half a century ago. How ironic that the sculpture of the subject herself sitting on a bench on Stanley Street in Liverpool city centre is one of the most visited spots during normal times. Tourists paying homage, office workers perched next to her taking a lunchtime breather, waiters from the Casa Italia restaurant across the road sucking on a crafty cigarette. As lockdown eased, Eleanor sat alone. Worth pondering if she had much in the way of company over these past weeks; isolation and physical, emotional distance are byproducts of lockdown for sculpture and humans alike, out of sight, out of mind.
In my essay The Housework Issue (The Other One) in the Know Your Place anthology of writings on working class culture and life (Dead Ink 2017), I wrote of women cleaners rendered invisible within the workplace, an automatic othering of their very being because of the low social status of their occupation. During the early lockdown phase, celebrities sobbing in mansions or singing Imagine, and online advice on how to change sheets or use the washing machine while one’s domestic help was confined to their own home, provided light humour for us all. But it’s time now to remember and re-evaluate the status of the cleaner, the care assistant, the low paid workers stacking supermarket shelves “feeding the nation”, all of them. We promised to do that, remember?
When the instructions became work from home “if you can” and to avoid using public transport if possible, it was the low paid the first to ride the buses and clock on for a shift simply because they had to, not because they wanted it. Given the key worker label with no pay rise to match, travelling to work for such workers became problematic. They became part of the problem and kept apart literally, the interior of buses taped off like a crime scene, seats issued with a red cross or green tick sticker. The key worker tag faded from common parlance as the weekly Thursday clap stopped. The novelty and appreciation wearing away.
Lack of options and low incomes go hand in hand, the reduction of choices of where to work, live and shop. Working from home is not possible in hands-on roles. In the world of click and deliver, online shopping is workable for those with access to debit and credit cards or a bank account in the black, basic stuff out of the reach for an indecent proportion of people. It’s those with the loudest voices who get to win at life, and we cheered on the free school meals victory good and proper because to help the poorest is the right and moral thing to do.
But derisory commentary on the queues of women outside Primark from dawn on the first Monday of non-essential shops opening bellowed a sense of double standards, with a thick sticky layer of misogyny slathered on top. Poverty isn’t clean and tidy with a simple, one-stop-fix. The lockdown stretched from late spring until summer. It’s awkward, but skint people buy where it’s cheap, and children do insist on growing out of clothes and shoes.
Charity shops are the championed environmentally friendly and economic shopping resource. Charity shopping is a game for the wily and sharp eyed. It’s fantasy or extreme luck to get everything on the first go. The winning formula is repeated visits, good timing and hoping things will be in your size. Hold up Primark as disposable fashion and the worst example of consumerism and capitalism if you like, but after three months of confinement within homes alone or with the same faces for company, women needing to be with our own kind against a back drop of cheery fabrics is not an outrageous want. There’s a difference between not having enough for a daily Costa and not having enough for anything. For the latter, strategic shopping replaces ethical.
A broadsheet newspaper last week celebrated the reopening of charity shops in Walthamstow, London. Happy shoppers scooping up bargains, stock boosted by a Covid clear out, people using lockdown to throw out things they don’t need. In Birkenhead, charity shops are opening slowly with national charities being the first to welcome customers, local smaller concerns delaying the move.
Birkenhead’s Cancer Research UK shop re-opened last week on reduced hours and days to allow for regular cleaning of the store, quarantining of new donations and restocking. Only eight customers are allowed in at any one time. “Some of our older customers come in for a chat,” says assistant manager Wendy Brown. “We have one lady who lives in sheltered housing. She’s in every day for a minimum of an hour. We chat about everything from the Royal family to The Beatles. She bought us Easter eggs on a daily basis. It’s a lifeline to those who live alone to see a friendly face and have a good conversation, it’s going to be difficult for them as they won’t have the option to linger as long as they like if there is a queue outside.”
Birkenhead’s town centre social supermarkets sell food donations and surplus stock from larger supermarkets; Make It Happen’s ‘pay as you feel’ policy and Number Seven’s set reduced price for members help keep people on low incomes fed. Most days outside Number Seven there are selected free foods outside, a lucky dip of bread or veg or readymade omelette mix maybe. Light years away from news bulletins heralding the opening of pubs and restaurants that opened last weekend, where you’ll be able to buy what you fancy no substitutes, with the swipe and tap of the finger on an app. Wendy Brown sums the situation up when she adds, “we have plenty of Eleanor Rigbys in our shop”.
We have them everywhere if we care to look close enough. And it’s true a sense of community has been built and maintained these last three months, locally and nationally. Poverty has a sneaky way of bleeding into areas it’s not welcome. Few are immune from its cruelty. The Pink Box Campaign supplies menstrual products to 21 local organisations and community groups on Wirral, mainly Birkenhead and Wallasey, for those struggling to afford them. The campaign has witnessed a growth of need during the pandemic and reacted accordingly, distributing over a 1000 packets of tampons and pads in the past five weeks.
“Very diverse areas too,” Anna McLaughlin, co-founder and project manager of the two years old campaign told me, “including Prenton, Eastham, Wallasey Village. Places that wouldn’t usually access our service to be honest.”
The cost of a pack of tampons is not huge in the grand scheme of things but dignity and hygiene around menstruation can quickly become financially out of reach when circumstances change.
“I was struggling to cope with finances due to shielding, online shopping and mortgage payments going up. I found myself in unfamiliar territory,” says a woman who asked the Campaign for help. “I was forced to make cuts and some months I just couldn’t afford sanitary products amongst other personal items. You never know when you might need help, it can happen to anyone in any walk of life.”
Emily Maitlis’ subversive monologues on Newsnight, namely the two about disproportionate effects of the pandemic on the poor and Boris Johnson’s special advisor Dominic Cummings’ hundreds of miles jaunt to Durham, cut through all the bluster from our Prime Minister. On the telly now he flatters with platitudes about good old fashioned British common sense seeing us through, and to spend, spend, spend in the shops to get the economy moving. It’s going to be a difficult time ahead, he adds, painful and expensive to make up. This sounds like a threat. It’s frightening, because we already know he, they, can’t protect everyone. The said so back in April.
Number Seven and Make It Happen remained reassuring and open throughout the pandemic and there’s something very giddy and freeing about freaky dancing up the stairs of the familiar ramshackle Skeleton Records on Oxton Road, to Thrills ‘n’ Pills and Bellyaches after weeks of a locked door and silence. It’s with a stubborn sense of local pride and unity that the queue outside Primark stays firm and present, dictating that no woman in this town will be shamed in her pursuit of a pair of summer sandals. And yet, walking further along Oxton Road, a sign outside the closed church invites us to “Try Praying”. One can’t help but imagine the divine intervention idea carries the unspoken subtext “let’s face it folks, what do you have to lose?”
Read the first in this series by Cath Holland here.
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